For many North Americans, Portugal is a somewhat undiscovered territory. Located west of Spain, it’s famous for Port wine. But there’s much to learn about this jewel of a country, especially its stunning geography.

In broad strokes, the Douro River separates the northern region from the central. The Tejo (you may hear it referred to as the Tagus, its former Roman name) River outlines the center of the country from the Alentejo region (literally translated as “below Tejo”). Farthest south is the area known as the Algarve.

Increasing numbers of Canadian and U.S. expats are discovering the charms of Serra da Estrela, where you can ski on real or manmade snow, and of the rolling hills, cork trees, and golden, red-and-purple-flowered plains of Alentejo.

Perhaps the best place to start your love affair with Portugal is with its capital. Located two-thirds of the way down the country from north to south, Lisbon sits on seven hills which offer spectacular views of the city, the Tejo, and the Atlantic. Just outside Lisbon, a string of exquisite beaches from Praia de Caxias to Cascais adds an element of holiday recreation to this cosmopolitan center.

Lisbon is the oldest city in Western Europe, predating London, Paris, and Rome by centuries. Invaded and ruled by Germanic tribes in the fifth century, the Moors in the eighth, recaptured in 1147 by the Crusaders, and virtually destroyed by the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, the city is a survivor.

Its location on the Atlantic makes Lisbon an important seaport, and the country’s largest. Add nearby industrial, technological, financial, and mass media sectors, and you’ll understand why Lisbon is the wealthiest region in Portugal.

In addition to the beauty of its geographical location, Lisbon is a magnet for visitors seeking museums of all sorts—from fine art to pharmacopeia, you’ll find one to suit you. And if you’re looking for a good meal, Lisbon has a seemingly limitless number of cafés, bars, and restaurants, including seven that boast Michelin stars.

Retire in Lisbon

Lisbon

Here’s something to keep in mind if you’re interested in escaping rough winter weather: With its Mediterranean climate, Lisbon enjoys the warmest winters of any large city in Europe. Average temperatures range from 59 F during the day to 46 F at night from December to February. The summer season usually lasts about six months, from May to October.

You don’t need to own a car here. The city offers great transportation, including buses, trams, funiculars, trains, a metro, and even boats. If you wanted to explore the countryside, you can rent a car and eliminate daily driving in Lisbon’s famously intimidating traffic.

Want a break from city life? Head northwest toward the palace town of Mafra and visit the 1,187 hectares of land in the Tapada Nacional de Mafra, former hunting grounds of the kings of Portugal. Or take your pick of sun-drenched beaches like Carcavelos or Ericeira. Visit Cascais, once known as “The Portuguese Riviera,” now an expat haven. And what makes visiting these places even better is that the journey is just as enjoyable as the destination, as national roads and autostradas are well-maintained and congestion-free.

Lifestyle in Lisbon

Lisbon

You will always feel like you’re on vacation in Lisbon, where every day you can find a new cultural site, beach, boutique, or eatery.

Your experience will be flavored by which area you choose to live in. Districts have neighborhoods, or bairros, and each has its own distinct ambience. Here’s a note on a few:

  • Baixa, Rossio, and Restauradores: Streets are packed with locals and tourists alike visiting shops, monuments, and restaurants.
  • Bairro Alto, Bica, and Cais do Sodré: Lisbon’s night life center.
  • Castelo, Alfama, and Mouraria: The historic heart of town, imbued with a sense of the past, and home to great fado.

Wherever you settle, however, certain things will be the same. At your local café, enjoy morning coffee (bica) with torrada (slices of thick white bread toasted to perfection) or pastel de nata (the creamy custard tart that is the national pastry).

Then stroll in one of the city’s parks, or along broad, tree-lined, Avenida da Liberdade and window shop, or walk down to the harbor and boat-watch.

In the afternoon, stop by Lisbon’s branch of the Spanish department store, El Corte Inglés. Grab a snack, buy groceries, see a movie in the Cineplex, and, if you have them, get your car washed and dog groomed.

You can also leave the city for a while. Take the train to Cascais (about one hour) at the Cais do Sodré station. Lunch bayside on the patio at the Hotel Baía and ride the carousel in the center of town. Then head back to the city and catch a performance—in English—by The Lisbon Players at their historic theater, Estrela Hall.

Cost of Living in Lisbon

Lisbon

Daily living costs are higher here than in smaller cities. But even so, expenses are less than in other European capital cities like Paris, London, and Madrid.

Here are some examples of monthly costs for a couple  living in an apartment in the Lisbon area:

 Expense U.S. $
 Utilities (Gas and electric, depending on season) $60-$80
 Water $30
 Internet/Telephone/Cell phones (2)/Cable (Package) $100
 Maid (three hours, bi-weekly) $50
 Groceries $300
 Transportation: Mass transit/Tank of gas $60/80
 Dining and entertainment $200

 

Living Well in Lisbon, Portugal

lisbon-vistas

Laundry is hanging in vivid, postcard style above bougainvillea-draped walls. Built on one of Lisbon’s seven hills, this is Alfama, my favorite Lisbon neighborhood.

Walking through the old becos, the slim cobbled alleyways that lead me up and down ancient hills, I hear fado, the beautifully melancholic, traditional music of Portugal, from a neighbor’s window.

The capital of Portugal is all about romantic views, secret neighborhoods, and faded grandeur. The houses here are clad in intricate tiles to reflect the sun’s heat, and it seems as if the city here wears its beauty inside out.

Originally from Texas, I moved into the heart of the old Moorish part of the city at the beginning of 2011, renting a small apartment with a tiny balcony on a narrow street in Alfama. I paid about $550 a month, and it was the perfect introduction to the city.

Alfama is reminiscent of the North African heritage of southern Spanish cities like Seville and Granada. Lisbon’s central neighborhoods sweep down to the old port in elegant boulevards, rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake in an elegant style known as “Pombaline.” Into the mix you have late Gothic architecture as well, and the city is home to one of Europe’s largest plazas, Terreiro do Paço.

Yellow trams from another era climb slowly past medieval cathedrals, delicious pastry shops, and haphazard stacks of bacalhau—dried, salted codfish—outside traditional grocers. My head is constantly turning to take in the rich array of markets and boutiques, esplanades and plazas, fado singers and street performers. But there are so many cathedrals around Alfama, around Lisbon, around Portugal—I always know what time it is by the bells.

The city’s wild, river-ocean atmosphere has affected the children here so that they never tire, and they rocket up and down these steep hills and stairs, yelling with smiles. Built by the Moors to create natural air conditioning, the buildings in Alfama are clustered together over narrow streets, and the sun has a hard time finding its way into the apartments. Unless you’re on the top floor of the building, the interior spaces can be dark.

To combat the lack of indoor sun, locals sun themselves on the miradouros (“lookout points”), several of which can be found in Alfama. The people of Lisbon, known as alfacinhas (“little lettuces”) are proud of the miradouros and their cinematic views of the city and the Tagus River. In Alfama I recommend the Portas do Sol, with a nice esplanade and a kiosk selling pastries and coffee.

There is a wonderful rhythm to life in Alfama. Old men gather to smoke every morning at tiny hole-in-the-wall tascas (“bar/cafés”). You’ll know when you’re at an authentic tasca—an espresso will cost you just 65 cents…

In the current issue of International Living magazine, I share more of what I’ve learned since moving to Lisbon—including a budget, a guide to the best markets, where you should rent, and more.

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